An African American man demonstrates a medical model to a group

Leonidas H. Berry, Multi-Dimensional Doctor

The National Library of Medicine announces new public access to more than 1,600 materials selected and digitized from the Leonidas H. Berry Papers, 1907–1982 manuscript collection including letters, photographs, and ephemera documenting the career and personal life of the trailblazing physician and civil rights advocate. His work is recognized in the NLM traveling banner exhibition For All the People: A Century in Citizen Action in Health Care Reform; the online adaptation of the exhibition features 1,686 digitized items in a digital gallery. This week we’ve been featuring material from the collection in honor of what would be Dr. Berry’s 116th birthday—July 16, 2018. In this final post, Beatrix Hoffman, professor of history at Northern Illinois University and guest curator of For All the People: A Century of Citizen Action in Health Care Reform, discusses Dr. Berry’s life and legacy.

By Beatrix Hoffman ~

Why haven’t we all heard of Leonidas Berry, M.D.? His career, spanning most of the twentieth century, was so accomplished it almost defies description. Berry called himself a “multi-dimensional doctor,” and those dimensions included physician, medical device inventor, teacher, pioneer in addiction treatment, civil rights activist, church leader, author, and even historian. His scientific and professional achievements, as well as his lifelong fight against racial discrimination in medicine, are vividly documented in the Leonidas H. Berry Papers at the National Library of Medicine, now available to view in a Digital Gallery that includes more than 1,600 items from the collection.

An Afircan American man and woman sit with two African American boys
Berry family portrait featuring Leonidas H. Berry (age 3), his parents, Beulah and Llewellyn Berry, and brother, Richard Berry (18 months), Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 1907

Berry was born in Woodsdale, North Carolina in 1902 and grew up in the segregated South. After attending Wilberforce University and the University of Chicago Medical School, he practiced medicine in Chicago for six decades, serving as attending physician at Cook County and Provident Hospitals. He became internationally recognized for co-inventing an instrument for taking gastric biopsies, and for creating a new type of clinic-based addiction treatment that became known as the “Berry Plan.” He spoke at conferences around the globe, authored a major textbook, and published close to 100 articles in medical journals. Yet, for twenty years Berry sought but could not obtain a permanent staff position at Chicago’s Michael Reese Hospital due to his race.

Vignettes of conference speakers and attendees
Dr. Berry speaking at the World Congress of Gastroenterology Paris, 1954

Following his own experience, Berry became dedicated to the fight against racial discrimination in medicine. As chair of the Health Advisory Committee of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations in the 1950s, he exposed hospitals’ widespread exclusion of black physicians, and fought to bring hospital facilities to the segregated South Side. From 1965 to 1966, he served as President of the National Medical Association (NMA), the organization of African-American physicians. As President, Berry pushed the American Medical Association to end its approval of all-white chapters (which it did by the end of the decade). He pledged the NMA’s support for the new Medicare program, and demanded that hospitals nationwide comply with the anti-segregation provisions of Medicare and the Civil Rights Act. During the 1965 voting rights march in Selma, Alabama, Berry headed a delegation from the NMA and worked in a first-aid tent treating injured marchers.

An African American man and woman
Dr. Berry attends a conference, 1972

Berry also invented the idea of the remote area medical service. After hearing of the devastating effects of segregation and lack of medical care in Cairo, Illinois, in the southern tip of the state, Berry organized a group of physicians, nurses, and technicians, chartered an airplane, and began regular flights from Chicago to Cairo. The Flying Black Medics, as Berry named them, provided health education and medical care, and assisted local civil rights leaders in demanding better health facilities for Cairo’s citizens.

African American women and men sit in a small plane
Flying black medics in Cairo, IL, 1970

Toward the end of his life, Berry wrote and spoke extensively about the history of African-Americans in medicine and published a book on his own family history, I Wouldn’t Take Nothin’ for My Journey. As the fight against racial disparities in health continues today, we can take inspiration from the fascinating documents and photographs on display in the Leonidas H. Berry Digital Gallery.

Read the first post in this series: Leonidas H. Berry and the Fight to Desegregate Medicine


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